SYDNEY, July 30 (Reuters) – Samoa’s new prime minister has confirmed she will cancel a port project backed by China, but has not closed the door on China as it heads to the Pacific nation in a context of intensifying regional competition between Beijing and Washington.
Fiame Naomi Mataafa has indicated that she will only approve investments that have clear benefits for her country, as she expressed doubts about the Pacific’s benefit from being a pawn in a geopolitical feud between the two superpowers. .
Mataafa said China’s interest in the Pacific increased as the United States “left” the region.
“There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Pacific, which may be a good thing, but not necessarily,” Mataafa said in an interview on Zoom on Wednesday, days after his election was confirmed, ending a political crisis lasting several months.
Samoa, an island nation of around 200,000 that depends on subsistence farming, tourism, fish, coconut product exports and foreign remittances, has found itself exposed to stampede external geopolitics, as Washington and its allies respond to a more assertive Beijing in Pacific waters that have largely gone undisputed since World War II.
Any foreign involvement in critical infrastructure such as ports and airstrips is particularly sensitive, and China’s proposed construction of a wharf in Vaiusu Bay played a role in the April elections.
Former Samoan ruler Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has pledged to build the port with Chinese help for $ 100 million, after a similar project was deemed economically unsustainable by the Asian Development Bank. Read more
Mataafa told Reuters in May, after her election but before taking office as Malielegaoi contested the poll’s result, that she would abandon the project, calling it excessive for a small country already heavily in debt to China.
China is Samoa’s largest creditor, accounting for about 40 percent, or some $ 160 million, of its external debt.
“We have indicated that this will not be a priority for us at the moment and that there will be other areas that we are more interested in,” Mataafa told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
“I am glad that the outgoing government has not reached a level of agreement with China where this is in place. “
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday that China had had preliminary discussions with Samoa on the feasibility of building the port at the request of the former government.
“China always adheres to the principle of mutual respect and consultation on an equal footing in the conduct of foreign cooperation,” the statement said.
“We will continue to strengthen friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields with the new Samoan government in accordance with the above principles for the benefit of both countries and peoples.”
Mataafa said China is a long-term partner and his government will assess the relationship the same way it assesses all of its bilateral ties.
“I think as a new administration we will do it for China and any other partner we have,” she said.
“China is right in the foreground because of the nature of the work that is funded. There is a lot of infrastructure, mostly construction infrastructure that other donors don’t do. “
FIRST WOMAN LEADER
Mataafa was confirmed on July 23 as Samoa’s first female prime minister, ending the political impasse in place since the disputed April 9 elections. Malielegaoi had ruled the Pacific island nation for 22 years, making him one of the oldest rulers in the world.
Mataafa said his government would focus on the national budget after the several-month stalemate as the coronavirus pandemic had devastated important industries.
Her rise to the country’s leadership was briefly frustrated by a law, ironically, designed to ensure greater representation of women in parliament, which led to attempts to add an additional member allied to her rival.
Mataafa said there were permanent obstacles to women’s participation in politics, such as the practice in some villages to deny women chief titles, called matai, which is a prerequisite for entering parliament.
“Basically our electoral system was based on our traditional Matai system,” she said. “To move away from that would apparently be saying that we want to ditch the traditional. What might be better to do is… to change people’s perception of tradition. “
Reporting by Jonathan Barrett; Additional reports by Cade Cadell; Editing by Jane Wardell
Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.